Before this year’s classes began in the Philadelphia School District, parents groups and lawyers from the Public Interest Law Center worried that budget cutbacks were so severe that the state would not be able to meet its legal obligation to provide an adequate education.
A few days before class, they called on fellow parents, students and teachers to file formal complaints with Pennsylvania’s education secretary.
Thus far, they said, 260 have been filed. They expect to file an additional 100 complaints by the end of the week.
On Thursday, education advocates also announced a new Web site, myphillyschools.com, where people can make official complaints.
Minh Nguyen, who works with Asian youth at Boat People SOC, said some immigrant students are not getting the language services to which they’re entitled. Take a Vietnamese high school senior, who just came to the country last year.
“When I first met her, I asked her, ‘What are you most excited about to be in Philadelphia, to be in the United States?'” he said. “And she said to me, ‘I’m most excited about getting a good education. I want to improve my life. I want to end poverty within my family.'”
But now, Nguyen said, she is lost.
“She doesn’t know what’s going on,” he said. “There’s no Vietnamese staff within the school. There’s no language support that is accessible to her. … There is one BCA, a bilingual counseling assistant, that rotates between four different schools.”
Other parents and advocates complained of overcrowded classrooms, the absence of arts programs, and too few guidance counselors. Due to a budget crisis that many call unprecedented, the school district opened its doors this year with 3,000 fewer employees and major cutbacks in programs.
The activists called on the Corbett administration to release a $45 million grant that has been set aside for the school district, pending financial and academic “reforms,” including concessions from the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.
Councilman Bill Green agreed that the state should pitch in more money to the city’s schools.
“Across the country, state funding constitutes, on average, 43.5 percent of school districts’ funding. In Pennsylvania, however, our commonwealth contributes 35.8 percent,” he said. “Only nine other states in the country provide a lower funding percentage than the commonwealth of Pennsylvania. What’s happening to our students is flat-out wrong.”
Tim Eller, a spokesman for Pennsylvania’s education department, said the state is confident that the services mandated by state and federal laws are being provided, despite a bare-bones budget. He said the state will review any complaints it receives.
“The long-term solution to the district’s fiscal challenges, one that will allow more resources to be directed toward the students and schools, remains an agreement with the PFT that achieves the savings and reforms identified by the School Reform Commission,” he said, “as well as City Council extending and redirecting the 1 percent sales tax to the district.”
Earlier this year, the General Assembly authorized the extension of a 1 percent local sales tax that was due to expire, which would raise up to $120 million for the district in future years. Instead, City Council President Darrell Clarke wants to evenly split the sales tax proceeds between the schools and the city’s woefully underfunded pension system. To make up the difference, he is pushing for the state to provide more funding and authorize a local cigarette tax.
A City Council committee approved a proposal Thursday to raise $50 million for the city’s schools by purchasing vacant properties from the school district. Mayor Michael Nutter, who argues that the plan poses significant challenges, prefers to raise that money by borrowing $50 million against the future sales tax proceeds.
Either way, the school district has already booked the $50 million and restored some laid-off employees with the money.